Regardless of who you are asking, the New England Patriots’ biggest need heading into the 2021 NFL draft is the quarterback position. While they did re-sign Cam Newton to a one-year deal last month and also have a developmental option in Jarrett Stidham under contract, neither has proven himself as a long-term solution at this point in their respective careers.
The Patriots therefore have to get a quarterback out of this year’s draft, right? Right?!
Well, not necessarily.
Quarterback is the most important position on the field and has more direct impact on a game’s outcome than any other, but Bill Belichick and company will not overextend to get one. Selling the farm to move up the board in the first round for either Ohio State’s Justin Fields or North Dakota State’s Trey Lance might be the popular move, but at the end of the day it all comes down to the core concept at the heart of New England’s decision making.
It’s all about the value. And: if the value simply is not there for one of the top quarterbacks or even one of the later-round options available, the Patriots will not pick a passer just for the sake of picking one.
Belichick spoke about this during his annual pre-draft press conference last week. When asked about investing the 15th overall position, he took a detour to speak about maximizing value as the ultimate goal.
“Whatever his positives and negatives are, whatever he brings to the table, whatever weaknesses you think he might have or all the other things you brought up, whatever those things are or aren’t, they’re the same no matter where that individual player gets selected. Ultimately you want to maximize the value of the picks,” Belichick said.
“But, the player is the player. Whatever his strengths and weaknesses are, that’s what they are and you try to put a value on that. You try to figure out what that player will do for your team when he’s on your team. What his role will be, what his level of performance will be. That’s part of the process that you use to select him. It’s important with every pick; it doesn’t matter what number it is or what round it is.”
Ever since Belichick arrived in New England in 2000, the Patriots have been known for trying to get the most out of their available resources without overspending. Yes, they were unusually aggressive in this year’s free agency but only because the market in combination with their own cap space allowed them to be just that.
Being aggressive does not mean abandoning core principles, though, and anything but this year’s draft being the same would be a surprise.
NFL insider Field Yates, who interned as a coaching and scouting intern in New England for four summers and also spent time with the Kansas City Chiefs, pointed this one out during an interview with SB Nation back in 2015. Speaking about how teams are approaching the draft, he used the Patriots as an example of a club not panicking and sticking to the established value systems and, ultimately, the board.
“My roots are with Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli, people who, whether or not the players turn out perfectly, their draft strategy is pretty consistent: Maximize value ... I think the quality organizations that have a draft-and-develop system have a very — it’s almost a placid atmosphere: ‘Let’s be patient. Let’s have our contingency plan,’” he said.
“At the end of the day, and maybe this is just based on my experience, but the best teams are the ones that don’t panic. They have a board, they have a plan and the longer they can stick with whatever their initial plan was, the better. When you have to start calling teams, and saying to yourself that, ‘Oh, we have to move up for this guy’ — the quicker you say ‘Oh bleep!’, the quicker your draft is going to go off the rails.”
Obviously, this does not rule out the Patriots swinging a trade up the board to get themselves into the range to select one of the top-tier passers available this year. If they feel the value of a trade-up and targeted player is superior to what they might be able to end up with at No. 15, making a move might be reasonable even within New England’s value-based framework.
However, coming out of the draft with a QB come what may is not what the Patriots will be after. Belichick himself acknowledged that finding value is what the draft is all about.
“Who do you move up for? Who do you take if you stay and what players are on the board? If players are on the board that you feel like don’t add a lot of value or maybe they’re not the kind of fit for your team that you’re looking for in that particular situation, then maybe you say, ‘OK, maybe we consider moving back,’” he said.
“There’s certainly been many of times where we felt like we were able to get the same player or comparable value at a lower point in the draft so we moved backwards.”
Regardless if they are moving up or down the board the board, or stay put after all, the Patriots will do what they always do: try to get the best value for the resources they invest. If this means ending up with a quarterback, great. If not, so be it.
At the end of the day, New England has been able to build the lone dynasty of the salary cap era not because of decisions driven by perceived need or sentimentality but by sticking to the value principles. For better or worse, the Patriots will do the same this year.